‘Labé, the capital of Guinea-Conakry, up in the Fouta Djallon, is motorcycle city, overrun with thousands of Chinese-made bikes – and ‘moto taxis’ are the way to travel, carrying a minimum of 2-3 passengers a piece. As we walked around the town, we had to constantly dart out of the way as a ‘moto’ zoomed towards us, at maximum speed– within inches of us – “à ton, à ton!” (we have this expression: ‘taking no prisoners’, which seemed rather apt, on the frenetic, horn-blaring, streets of the capital, as we leapt and scurried out the pathway of motorcycles, coming from all directions!). “In Labé, there are too many accidents every day.” Saif (our local fixer) told us, as he led us through the dusty, stinking, dirty, litter-filled streets of the downtown area. Despite the moto-taxi dodging, and the putrid aromas, Labè is a vibrant, animated, friendly place – ‘Jarama’s’ (local Pula language greeting), “bonjour’s”, and “ca va’s”, abound, from every smiling, curious (intrigued by the two ‘portos’ – white people/European) person we pass’ – words by Helen Jones-Florio – extract from ‘The Long and Winding Road… Kedougou, Senegal – Labé, Guinea-Conakry – and back again‘ Read more on the River Gambia Expedition blog.
Paddling up, in our two foldable canoes, towards the shore of Kemoto Point, we could see that our arrival was not going unnoticed – we were being closely observed by a dozen or so young kids, and a couple of elderly gentlemen, sitting smoking, by the rivers edge.
This kind of avid interest in us, was an all too common occurrence, throughout the whole of our journey, down the River Gambia, which began at it’s source, high up in the Fouta Djallon Highlands, of Guinea-Conakry. In Kemoto Point, however, we had our first real experience of a village which appeared to be populated by young kids, women, and older people – and no youth, to speak of.
After we made camp, our vigilant audience of young kids, grew in numbers, as the word went around that there were ‘toubabs‘ in town. They vied excitedly for our attention, telling us about an abandoned hotel that they wanted to show us. Intrigued, we allowed our boisterous entourage to lead us through the village, introducing us to their mothers, and grandparents, along the way. As we walked around, Florio and I began to notice that there seemed to be a distinct lack of men, particularly between the ages of 16-25. Where they all at work, in the fields, perhaps?
One of the few young men that we did meet, Lamin, told us of how ‘all my brothers’ (it’s the norm, in this part of the world, to describe extended family, even friends, as your brother, sister, father, mother, uncle, and so on, regardless of whether they are blood related or not, as people tend to live very closely together, often in the same compounds; sharing the responsibility for each other) had left to go to the Senegambia coastal areas, where the big tourist hotels were, where they hoped to find more work; to enable them to make money to send back to their families. The all too familiar urban drift, which we’d come across again and again, on our travels, but in Kemoto Point, the problem seemed to be exacerbated. Almost an entire generation, of young men, were gone, from one village – leaving a huge gap.
Another problem was that the men (and, in more rarer instances, young women) had left, to make their way, overground- ‘the back way’ – crossing the desert, towards Libya. By all accounts, a long, arduous, journey, followed by the fight – and immense expense – with 1000’s of other people, in Libya (providing they even make it that far), to get onto dangerously over-packed, illegal immigrant boats to Europe.
It was the oddest experience, to walk through a village where we didn’t encounter more than half a dozen young men. Meanwhile, our clamorous young escorts, leading us out into the bush, wielding rusty old machetes, expertly hacking away at any branches and grasses that stood in their way, became increasingly excited, to the point of becoming feral! They literally ran amok – hysterically screaming, shouting, laughing, fighting, and crying (I had to step in at one point, to admonish one young girl who was smacking her much smaller ‘brother’ around the head, for no apparent reason, other than she and her friends seemed to find it extremely hilarious!).
Sitting around our small campfire that evening, talking to Lamin – the kids still present and watching our every move, from the shadows, but respectfully keeping their distance, whilst we ate supper – he expounded on our conversation, about the problems of the mass exodus of young men, and about how the young mothers and elderly villagers couldn’t cope with the kids increasingly manic behaviour. With few men around, to discipline younger siblings and/or their children – especially the young boys, who now had no role models – he told us how the time-honoured structure of village life was shifting, and that the kids were being allowed to run wild. He explained it as a combination of the women just not having the time, or energy – as each minute of the day was spent working, cooking, cleaning, looking after their babies – to the elders, who no longer seemed able to garner the respect from the young kids; customarily, respect for elders is the norm in West African culture. There being little prospect of schooling for many of them – either not enough money, or they would be expected to work (especially, the young girls) as soon as they were able, to make up for their older siblings absence and, thus, lack of income. And, as for the younger boys, sadly, our friend explained, they would more than likely follow in the footsteps of the young men, leaving the village, for the coast, or going ‘the back way‘, as soon as they could.
‘Group deliberation in English, Mandinka, Bambara, and French only confused the issue. We finally opted for what seemed the suicidal approach, by way of the river and hugging the bank, ready to leap into the knotted trees if the hippo came in for the kill.’ Jason Florio – Read more and see more on Maptia .
‘And yet, as we knelt and drank the clear water from where it first gathers in the sunlight, bubbling up from the giant natural cisterns beneath us, we felt that our source-to-sea journey had really begun… .’ Jason Florio – Maptia.com
With thanks to Jonny Miller, and all at Maptia, for a beautifully laid out feature, on their new website, of our River Gambia Expedition. Check out more incredible journeys – and striking images – on the site… ‘a world of stories‘